Occasional bad luck is inevitable. Dana, the protagonist of ‘Kindred”s luck is cataclysmic. A strong willed and -minded black woman married happily to a white older man, she is transported through time and space without so much as a how-do-you-do to slavery-era Baltimore to save her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, from an untimely death. Without Rufus’ inevitable union with a slave woman, little Dana will never come to be- or so she believes as she returns time and time again throughout Rufus’ life to save him, increasingly cognizant of what a sadistically self-obsessed monster he is gradually becoming.
“Kindred” is my first book by Octavia E. Butler, and I was struck by how well it delivers on it’s sumptuously creative premise. It is a speculative work of fiction, but is anything but fantastical when dealing with the hardships of the slaves on the Weylins’ plantation. Seeing Dana try to hide her education and her fierce independence in attempts to play the role of a ignorant, subservient slave held a kind of morbid fascination for me. In Rome, do as the Romans do. But in this case you pretty much have the equivalent of a red target painted against your cursedly brown flesh.
As it turns out, time travel works in this kind of like the wormhole to Narnia. Dana is summoned back to the past only to find that was hours for her, turns out to be years for the people left behind in the past. ‘Kindred’ never lets you forget the spiraling disorientation of living in such a changeable reality.
Dana is a well-developed character, weakened but not weak, strong but not infallible. Even Rufus himself, sniveling bastard that he grows up to be, is painted with nuance and ambiguity, rather than thick, derisive strokes. You can see that Rufus is a worthless chode, but you can comprehend how he came to be that way, and hopefully regard him at brief moments with pity, rather than with all-consuming (and for all intents and purposes, well deserved) hatred.
I found the writing in “Kindred” both pragmatic (no frills to be found) and compelling. I was a little put off by how careless Dana, and later, her husband Kevin are at changing the timeline. Actions have consequences, every science fiction-slash- time travel buff knows that. But Dana and Kevin take no heed of the drastic ways they effect historical events.
Also, it was weirdly icky how Butler described Rufus’ continual sexual exploitation of the slave girl, Alice, as love, albeit, a ‘destructive love.’ It was old-fashioned and sometimes downright gross, and I thought that Butler , as a feminist and a woman , would no better than to call assault anything but what it is, assault. Love is wanting what’s best for someone. Rufus certainly didn’t want what was best for Alice, he wanted what was best for himself.
He was a sad little boy who grew into a nasty, pathetically small-minded man, having learned nothing but cruelty and hatred from his father. I liked how his relationship with Dana, his savior, stayed ambiguous throughout (until the end when thing went down in a big way.) It made the book so much more interesting than if she had just hated and been repulsed by him.
More than a science fiction novel, ‘Kindred’ goes beyond mere concept, delivering a pulse-pounding story with a compelling cast of characters. In a time and culture where slavery is a distant concept hidden away in history books, ‘Kindred’ takes it to the forefront of our attention as we watch history unfold with Dana. Like Dana, we are riveted and deeply moved. Unlike Dana, we experience it from the comfort of our own home. ‘Kindred’ isn’t just a must read for science fiction lovers. It’s a must read, period. Fin.